Environmental Influences on Behavior

As a behavior analyst, it is my job to study human behavior. Using empirical-based evidence (i.e. verifiable research), I search for observable patterns in behavior and try to define them. Part of that includes understanding everything in a person’s environment that can influence his or her behavior.

In modern psychology, there are four main categories of environmental events that have been found to influence a person’s behavior¹:

1. Context – the context in which the behavior of interest occurs

  • Context can refer to the current physical, cognitive or emotional state in which a person’s behavior occurs.

2. Motivational Factors – the factors that motivated the behavior or the function of the behavior of interest

  • What does this person gain or take away by exhibiting this behavior? Why did they choose THIS particular behavior as opposed to another?

3. Antecedents – the preceding events that may contribute to the behavior of interest

  • What happened in that person’s environment to evoke that behavior at that moment? Although not always the case, the antecedent typically occurs not long before the behavior of interest.

4. Consequences – the result or outcome of the behavior of interest

  • The outcome of a behavior, and whether that outcome is perceived as “positive” or “negative”, has a great influence on the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

Identifying what the environmental factors are for the specified behavior of interest is the foundation for analyzing and then changing that behavior.

Read the two examples of driving-related scenarios below and see if you can identify the four environmental events in each:

Example 1

Derrick is driving on the interstate in a hurry because he is running a little late for work. He knows his exit is coming up soon but there is a large truck ahead, and the driver has signaled that they are going to take the same exit as Derrick. Not wanting to be stuck behind the slow moving truck, Derrick quickly speeds up and darts into the left lane to pass the truck. However, Derrick doesn’t see a motorcyclists is in the left lane in his blind spot and the two vehicles collide, causing a terrible crash.

Example 2

It’s Saturday night and Angela and her friends are headed to their favorite local pub.  Angela, being the great friend that she is, has agreed to be the designated sober driver for her friends. Upon arriving at the pub, Angela sees her crush, who waves and invites them over to his table. When she gets there, her crush smiles and offers her a drink. She hesitates, not wanting to break her sober driver pledge. But she really likes this guy and fearful of spoiling the moment, she accepts the drink. Angela continues to drink with her crush and his friends for several hours until her friends are ready to leave the pub. Now having had five or six drinks, Angela is severely intoxicated but she and her friends all traveled in her car and so she decides to drive anyways. A cop nearby notices Angela’s vehicle repeatedly swerving into oncoming traffic and promptly pulls her over for suspicion of DUI.

Think you have identified the four environmental events in each scenario? See how you did below:

Example 1 – Derrick

  • Context: Derrick is rushing to work and most likely flustered by his tardiness
  • Antecedent: The truck is traveling slower than Derrick, and he believes he has the opportunity to pass it.
  • Behavior: Derrick hastily changes lanes without checking his blind spot for other drivers
  • Consequence: Derrick doesn’t see the motorcyclists in time to stop and they collide.
  • Motivational factor: The function of the behavior is avoidance of being late for work.

Example 2 – Angela

  • Context: Angela is around her peers in an atmosphere where social norms encourage her to drink
  • Antecedent: Angela’s crush sees her at the bar and asks her to hangout
  • Behavior: Angela drinks alcohol
  • Consequence: Angela is intoxicated and chooses to drive drunk
  • Motivational factor: The function of the behavior is attention because drinking gained Angela the attention of the boy she liked.



1. Porter, B. (2011). Handbook of Traffic Psychology. London, UK: Elsevier, Inc.



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